Friday, June 22, 2007


Tricks of the Trade

“Swing! Batter, batter, batter. Swing!”

The catcher is nestled behind the batter, in front of the umpire. The catcher is eleven years old, the batter twelve. It could be one hundred years ago, or last week. Time has not altered the concept.

Players on the bench attempt to rattle the opposing pitcher. “Pitcher’s got a rubber arm. You throw like my sister. Your mother wears army boots.” (That one does date the writer, somewhat!)

Goofy little taunts. All part of the game. Anything to get the advantage, without going over the line, without cheating.

No steroids, no spitters, no hindering the flight of the ball. (Reggie Jackson once threw a hip to save his bacon.)

Two men out. Towering popup in the third base area. Infielders didn’t have to budge to catch the fly. Yankee runners on first and second.

When Alex Rodriguez rounded second base, he pretty well conceded he was a dead duck. The pop fly was on its way down into the Blue Jays’ glove. On he thundered toward third base. Just as he flew by the third baseman, he screamed: “Mine!” The intention was to distract the fielder, to decoy him into thinking that the shortstop would take the fly and end the inning.

The game was close. The Yankees desperately needed a win. Rodriguez had been personally maligned in the media the past couple of days, perhaps for an indiscretion. The Jays had won the two previous games. A Rod must have thought, “What the heck. Maybe it will work. Worth a try.”

Poor Howie Clark has been playing ball for along time, decades. Primarily in the minor leagues. But at a very high level---triple A, double A, and he has had a few cups of coffee in the bigs. On this occasion, he took the bait from A Rod, he stepped back to let Mcdonald field the ball and, “Thump”. It hit the ground.

All runners safe. Runner from second scored. The Yankees went on to win.

Manager John Gibbons stormed out of the Jays dugout to protest. There was an injustice, no doubt. Mcdonald was steamed, as was Matt Stairs, the burly Canadian who has recently found his stroke with the Jays. To no avail.

A Rod was smirking on third base. He was the cat that ate the canary. He had baited the hook, and it was taken.

It has been some time since we have seen the old hidden ball trick. Usually, there is a conference on the mound to discuss strategy. There is a runner, or perhaps runners on base. The conference ends, players return to their positions, the umpire gives the “Play Ball” indication. Runners move off their bases, gradually at first. Then “Zap!”

The infielder slaps a tag on the runner with the ball in his glove, hidden during the strategic conference. Runner is out. He’s the Charlie Brown. The Goat. The dummy who fell for one of the oldest pranks in baseball.

There were three seconds remaining on the clock in a college basketball game. The ball had gone out of bounds under the offensive basket. One last ditch effort, one last hope. Players jockeyed for position near the basket, for the trow-in, perhaps to get off a decent shot. Just after the referee handed the ball to the player to throw it in, one of the player’s teammates got down on the floor on all fours and began barking hysterically like a wounded dog. The opposing players gawked at the sight, the ball was thrown in, and was deposited in the hoop for an easy bucket. Game over. Victory by deception. Ethical, morally correct? YOU decide.

A hockey player flies over the opponent’s blue line in a one on two---attempting to get by two enormous defencemen. Suddenly he hears a tapping of a stick on the ice right behind him. He hears a teammate holler “Drop it! Drop it!”. He shuffles the puck back, and barges through the defence to create a screen for the goalie. At that point he discovers the deception. The player hollering for the puck was an opponent, flying back up the ice in transition.

Roger Neilson was a great coach and astute student of the game of hockey. Always looking for an edge, a way to win within the rules. In his days as the Peterborough Petes coach, he was faced with a challenge in the dying seconds of a game. He needed a goal to tie the game, so he pulled his goalie. He did not want the opposition to score an empty net goal on a long shot. He had his goalie place his goal stick across the crease in front of the net to keep the puck from sliding in. The changed the rule after that game.

On another occasion, one of his players got hit with a high stick near the end of a critical game. He skated over to the bench. Neilson helped the wound with a nick to encourage the sight of blood. Five minute major. The Petes scored twice on the power play to win the game. Referees now check for blood while a player is on the way to the bench.

The list is almost endless. The fine line is always there, and open to interpretation. Ethics, morals, value judgements. Right from wrong.

You make the call.
James Hurst June 14, 2007

Thursday, June 14, 2007


The Toughest Out

With two out in the ninth inning, the third out is always tough.

There is no time piece in baseball. No clocks, no stop watches, nothing is determined in hundredths of seconds. The game is over when that last out is made.

That out is even tougher when there is a no hitter on the line. The scoreboard indicates the situation with zeros---usually no runs, and no hits.

As the ninth inning approaches, there is a magic that takes over, an aura of something very special about to take place.

The pitcher sits quietly in the dugout during his team’s at bat during the eighth inning. No one will sit near him. No one will talk to him. It is traditional. It is sacrosanct. It is baseball.

There is no question that it is a nerve-wracking experience for the pitcher, the players, the management, the fans. There is a quiet calm as he leaves the dugout to take the mound for the last inning.

When he rings up the first two outs, it becomes volcanic. The fans stand, anticipating history. They roar with every strike, groan with the called balls. They erupt when the final out is made.

When Maglio Ordonez caught the fly ball for the last out in Detroit, Justin Verlander made history. His was the first no-hitter by a Tiger since Jack Morris accomplished the feat on the road in 1984---the last year that the Tigers won the World Series. His was the first no-hitter in Detroit since Virgil “Fire” Trucks tossed the “No No” in 1952. (Trucks was rewarded by the Tigers when they traded him the following year to the St. Louis Browns!)

Verlander is not a “Johnny-Come-Lately", by any stretch. He was drafted second overall by the Tigers in 2004, out of Old Dominion University. At that time, he was rated as the 22nd overall best right-handed starting pitching prospect.

That all changed dramatically last year. He won 17 games, lost nine for the Tigers in his first Major league Season. He won the Rookie of the Year Award for the American League. He had arrived. He helped the Tigers knock off the Yankees and the Oakland Athletics to get to the World Series.

At 6’ 5”, and 200 pounds, the lanky fireballer also mixes in other pitches. He leads the team in victories with seven, and has a miniscule 2.79 ERA. But he also most grateful to his teammates, as they give him 6.96 runs per nine innings, fifth-highest in the American League.

J J Hardy is second in the National League in Home Runs. He had an inkling that Verlander was going to be tough against his Brewers from his first at bat. “I think the pressure started mounting in the first inning, when he was throwing 100mph with that curveball and changeup, you know? When he can throw them all for strikes, he’s tough to hit.”

By the ninth inning, the fastball registered 102mph on the telecast. Verlander recalled the last out: “That’s why with one strike left and two outs, I stepped off the back of the mound and really just took a breather. I wasn’t soaking it up or anything, I was just trying to calm myself down.”

Hardy flied out to Ordonez, and catcher Ivan Rodriguez went out to hug Verlander. Pudge enjoyed the moment: “I think I was more excited than him. That moment when you see the fly ball go into his glove in slow motion, there’s no greater feeling than that. I’m sure he feels awesome; I feel great. I feel like I pitched a no-hitter myself.”

Several years ago, I sat in the fifth deck behind home plate at SkyDome in Toronto. The Jays’ Dave Stieb had two outs in the ninth inning. No Yankee had a hit. There was enough electricity in the air to run your family dryer for an eternity. Stieb stomped around on the mound, beside it, behind it. He was fired up, feeding off the situation. Roberto Kelly ruined the evening with a base hit to left field. Almost history.

The same thing happened this season to Boston’s Curt Schilling. He had two outs in the ninth and was pumped. Adrenalin raced through his body as he looked in for a sign from his catcher, Jason Varitek. He shook off a pitch or two, and served up a hittable pitch for Oakland’s Shannon Stewart. Whack! Into the outfield. Again, almost historic.

Nolan Ryan had it all figured out. Seven times he found himself in that position. Seven times he succeeded. He knew better than anyone how to get that last out, the toughest out.

James Hurst
June 13, 2007

Wednesday, June 06, 2007


The Ducks Have Won the Cup!

The city of Ottawa painted itself red for the Stanley Cup finals. There was a fever that had not been felt in the city since the heydays of the Rough Riders in the Sixties---the days of Jackson, Stewart, Thelen, Schreider, Billy Joe Booth, and the genial Frank Clair. The city that Victoria chose as our capital had vaulted itself, perhaps unknowingly, into the twenty-first century.

But it is not the same city of the sixties. It has become a plethora of little cities, grouped around the core, and has experienced a dynamic population growth since that time. The National Capital concept now includes Nepean, Kanata, Orleans, Russell and dozens of other tiny burgs. The Senators draw fans in a larger blanket area, stretching to Smiths Falls, and Perth, Winchester, and Pembroke, and many fans from across the river in Quebec.

There are even fans that make the trek, many times a year, from the Quinte area---season ticket holders who have been there through the lean times of Alexandre Daigle and Alexei Yashin.

I cautioned one woman about wearing an Anaheim Ducks sweater in a public restaurant. I was lunching with our local Member of Parliament, Daryl Kramp, in the parliamentary cafeteria, when I spotted the Ducks fan beside me. She was also breaking bread with her Member of Parliament, Jim Abbott, from British Columbia. She politely informed us that that she was proud to wear the Ducks regalia, as she had two boys on that team---the Niedermayer brothers. She introduced me to Lisa, Scott’s wife. Humiliated, I agreed she had the right to wear the sweater.

Scotiabank Place was ready for a party. Every seat was adorned with a sparking red pom pom hours before the game. Souvenir stands sprung up in all nooks in the building. Alanis Morissette belted out the anthems in the almost empty cavern, checking the sound. Fans arrived at 3:00pm for the 8:00 o’clock start to get pumped for the game. One of Canada’s finest rock bands, Trooper, cranked out the tunes, as did a couple of other bands. Beer tents, media tents, peddlers, hawkers, scalpers---all the festive trimmings. Along with the rain. Constant, nagging, misty, moribund precipitation.

Daniel Alfredsson’s goal with less than a second left in the first period could have sunk the Ducks. But they rebounded in the second period, in a dominant fashion. They outshot the Sens, outscored them 2-1. In frustration, Aldredsson drilled a slapshot off Scott Niedermayer’s ankle, deliberately, as the clock wound down. In the category of: “I wish I hadn’t done that”. The Ducks used that as a “rallying cry” in the third period, trapped the Sens to death, skated home with the victory.

There was also a sense of winning one for the old guy. This concept has become popular in recent years, with teams winning the Cup for veterans who had previously played on horrible teams. Ray Bourque hoisted the silver in an Avalanche uniform. Rod Brind’amour did the same as a Carolina Hurricane. This Ducks team is rallying around Teemu Selanne, with good cause.

He has paid his dues. He began his NHL career with the Winnipeg Jets in 1992. He scored seventy-six goals in his first regular season, still a rookie record. He rejoined the Ducks midway through the 95-96 season. He is on many of the “Top Ten” lists for NHL players over the last fifteen years---points, assists, goals. Many times an all star, he was the first recipient of the Rocket Richard Trophy in 1999, given to the player who scores the most goals in the regular season. He is playing in his first Stanley Cup final.

Ducks’ Coach Carlyle made special note of this in post-game address to the media. “Teemu has completely revitalized his career this year. His passion for the game is an inspiration for his teammates. His pass to Dustin Penner on the game winning goal was a big time play.”

Carlyle was asked how he would celebrate his team’s victory, with one game remaining, potentially. “I will enjoy this for ten more minutes,” he smirked. “Then we will prepare for the next game.” He was not particularly worried about matching lines, with one exception. He tried, whenever possible, to get the pesky Samuel Pahlsson out against Jason Spezza. (I attempted to catch a quote from Paulsson after the game. He was surrounded by reporters, hanging on his every word. When I finally got close enough to hear, I was lost. It was all in Swedish!)

Ditto for the Selanne interview. Finnish is even tougher to decipher.

The crowd was quiet and sullen as they filed out of the rink in the misty rain. In their minds, they knew it might be the last time, the last chance to grab Lord Stanley’s hardware.

The last team to come back from a 3-1 deficit was the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1942, when they defeated the Detroit Red Wings. There was a glimmer of hope for the Senators. But only slight. Twenty-eight teams have trailed 3-1 in the finals. Only the Leafs were victorious. But it was not to be for the Senators.

Wade Redden spoke quietly outside the Sens dressing room. He listed the obvious: “We have to fight to the end. We need to take it a step at a time. We need to do what we do well. We have to chip away at them.” He then looked up, more poignantly blurted: “We can’t do anything else”.

Both teams headed for the West Coast. They had entered Schwarzeneggerland. The land of glitz and glamour, the land of sun and surf, the land of the Beach Boys. And now, for the summer, Hockey Land, in the USA.

The Cup has been captured for the first time in history by a West Coast team. The Sharks and the Canucks watched the aftermath, with a little envy.

The time has come to hang up the blades for the summer, to air out that equipment. The Jays are closing on the Red Sox. The NBA Finals are in full swing. The Argos open their exhibition season this weekend.

The Ducks have won the Cup. It will sink in, eventually.

James Hurst
June 6, 2007

Sunday, June 03, 2007


Stealing Home

The Toronto Blue Jays and the New York Yankees were locked in a yawner. Very little was happening in a low scoring affair. After all, when you play so many games during a season, you will have the odd forgettable game.

Blue Jays’ second baseman Aaron Hill had managed to find himself on third base late in the game. Southpaw Andy Pettite was on the mound for the Yankees, eying the base runner Jason Phillips on first base. He went through his pre-pitch motions, got the sign, and paused in the stretch to hold the first base runner in check.

Jorge Posada positioned himself behind home plate, awaiting Pettite’s pitch. The Blue Jay batter, Royce Clayton, was set in the box.

Very routine. And then, it was almost as if lightning struck. (Not much chance of that literally happening with the CN Tower next door!)

Hill stole home. With a little encouragement from his third base coach, he edged along the base path, and bolted home. Andy Pettite was the only person at the Rogers Centre who didn’t see him take off. As a lefty, he was naturally positioned facing first base before his delivery. Posada was nicely screened by the batter. His vision is also slightly impaired by his mask.

When he saw that Hill was storming home, he jumped from his squatted position and screamed for the ball. Alex Rodriguez, the Yankee third baseman, also bellowed at Pettite. Pettite hesitated for a moment with all the comotion, then fired home. Too high, too late. Hill safely slid under the tag. A run for the Jays, badly needed.

The only other Blue Jay ever to steal home was Raul Mondesi, half a dozen years ago. (In my book, double steals don’t count).That makes the feat more remarkable than hitting for “The Cycle”. The Jays have only had one “No hitter”, from Dave Steib, another rarity.

In 1969, Rod Carew of the Minnesota Twins stole home SEVEN TIMES. Memory serving me correctly, he accomplished the same seventeen times in his career. He was much more sly about it than was Hill. He would stroll down the base path, scamper back when the pitcher threw to third, to hold him close to the bag. He would then edge off again, a little further.

How unnerving for the pitcher! Knowing that at any moment, despite his best efforts, Carew would score stealing home.

Rod Carew was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1991, along with Gaylord Perry, and the greatest Canadian pitcher ever, Ferguson Jenkins.

With a little key tapping from the Blue Jays’ site, I was able to hear Carew’s acceptance speech at the Hall. Quite remarkable.

He was born in Panama, on a train. Dirt poor, it was a struggle for him and his family from the getgo. But he thanked his mother, profusely, for, among other things, “always having a baseball glove” for him to use. He used to listen to Major League baseball games on the Armed Forces Network, and dreamed about becoming a Big League ball player.

When he was fifteen years old, he was under the microscope in New York City----all of the scouts, and agents, and knowledgeable baseball people had their eyes on him. He finally settled into Minnesota, as a Twin. His jersey now hangs in the rafters, # 29, retired.

He thanked one of his managers, Gene Mauch, also a former Montreal Expo. (Sadly, we hardly ever see those words in print, or hear them.) He thanked Billy Martin, the feisty first manager he had for “turning a kid into a man”.

Carew had a lifetime .328 batting average. He batted left, and would slap the ball to all fields to get on base. He led the league in hitting six times, and in 1977, he batted .388. In baseball jargon, “he could flat out hit!”. He was even part of one of the Twinkies triple plays in 1968.

In his notes, Gregory Chisholm indicates that Manager John Gibbons had the steal in the back of his mind. “Before the game, Butterfield came up to me. Butter knows these guys real well.” He said: “There might be an opportunity where we get a chance to steal home.” Gibbons gave him the green light. “Hilly executed it perfectly. You don’t see that too often. It was an exciting play.”

Following the game in Toronto, Pettite said that he was embarrassed by Hill’s action. “I know someone stole home off of me a long time ago in the windup. But to be out of the stretch, what can you say? It’s embarrassing. The guy’s able to get home and cost you a ball game.”

Perhaps if he were aware of Carew’s feats, Pettite would feel less shame.

The game was won on Alex Rios’s sacrifice fly to centre field, deep enough to easily score the runner on third. Not much respect for Johnny Damon’s arm, understandably.

A hard fought victory. They all count, in the great game of baseball.

James Hurst May 31, 2007

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